Anna Mae Langford Leigh was my maternal grandmother, born in Oaxaca, Mexico, on February 15, 1903, in a polygamous Mormon colony. Her father, Isaac Fielding Langford had had two wives.
Her mother, Laurena Allen Dalley Langford, was of Mayflower ancestry (Mandana Hillman Dalley - Hillman was from the Mayflower passenger Henry Samson) and also of the Martha Vineyard Mayhew family. I met my great-grandmother Laurena when she was in her 70s and I was still a baby.
My grandmother, Anna Mae Langford Leigh and my grandfather, Wilford Webster (Dick) Leigh, probably 1950 or earlier.. From my uncle's site:Â http:/www.leigh.org
My grandmother, Anna Mae Langford Leigh at age 85 in 1988.
The polygamy was not a big deal for the LDS in Utah, considering some had six or more wives, but it was a big deal according to the law: Polygamy had been outlawed since 1862 and prohibited by the LDS church since 1890.
Many men were proud of their polygamous stature and refused to divorce their wives. Often, they were jailed, then left Utah for other parts; often, they settled in Mexico, near the Arizona border.
Such was the seemingly inauspicious beginnings of my grandmother, a woman I loved more than most.
Life was hard during the early part of the 20th century, but my grandmother had a happy childhood; she lived among the comforts of those who loved her.
When the circus came to town near Sonora, Mexico, my grandmother and her brother, Bertram Moroni Langford, played with the black bear cubs that accompanied the circus train. Life was anything but dull.
One day as great-grandmother Laurena was making Irish soda bread for her children, she heard a disturbance in the house. Indians! great-grandmother Luarena screamed. Indians in the adobe hut!
My great-grandmother gave the Indians some fresh-made Soda bread, and they went away, fed and happy.
Not long afterwards, my great-grandfather, Isaac Fielding Langford, died of a heart attack. My grandmother was six. Her mother soon moved to Summit, UtahÂ - a small settlement in Southern Utah.
Three years later, when my grandmother was nine, she and great-grandmotherÂ Laurena and brother Bert moved to Cedar City, where Laurena built a small house on Second West so she could provide for her children. Laurena took inÂ boarders.
Anna Mae lived in the house at 117 South, 200 West until she graduated from high school in 1922 at Cedar's Branch Normal school.Â She worked in Cedar and also in Long Beach, California before meeting the man who would become her husband, Wilford Webster Leigh, a man seven years her senior.
One day, while working at Pete's drug store in Cedar City, my grandmother did meet Wilford Webster (Dick) Leigh.Â Dick Leigh was a sheep man and livestock broker-distributor, who was known throughout Cedar City. Great grandmother Laurena never worried about Anna Mae when she was out with Dick.
My grandmother had four children, nine years apart, all born within a 10-day period in October. My mother was the first-born, born on October 31, 1926.Â My grandmother had two more girls and then, finally, a boy - a joy to my grandfather.
By the time I was born, my grandmother was 50 years old and living in the same house she'd lived in, at 117 South 200 West in Cedar City, since she was nine.
Once long ago, IÂ had a dream of buying Grandma Leigh's house - the beautiful one-story, white frame house with a Rosette window and a small carriage house in the rear where Great-Grandmother Laurena lived; connecting the back yard was a TrellisÂ where Hollyhocks and Sweet William grew; the laundry line was strung out back near the cherry and apple trees,Â under which hung a worn-out but well-loved tire swing;Â Butterfy and Adirondack chairs were for sitting in the late afternoons, after a hard day of working. And there was red earth I so much loved.
But it was never to become a reality.
So I content myself with the memories of my summer vacations there as a child.
During these vacations, I visited my grandmother. I would travel from Salt Lake the 300 miles down the length of the sagebrush -accented desert to be with my grandparents in the quiet town of Cedar City, then, a population of 2, 000.
Really, I needed something to keep me occupied, considering I was several years older than my sisters.
I was five years old on my first visit to Grandma Leigh's house, I boarded the Greyhound bus and took the eight-hour trip with only my five-year-old loquacious charm and a name tag to identify myself.
Fillmore, Utah, was the half-way mark in the 300-mile journey. The bus driver offered his hand to take me to lunch at the restaurant. This was during an earlier, safer, period in the history of our country. Clearly, it was my first date.
When I arrived in Cedar, my grandfather was not there to pick me up. The bus depot attendants called my grandparent's Â house, but no one answered. Within an hour, he came. Apparently, he had gotten lost.
I have lovely memories of summer vacations at Grandma Leigh's house, where we played in the irrigation ditches, made clay pots and bowls out of the red earth, tended the Hollyhocks and Sweet William, and played with the cats that lived with my grandmother.
Two black Scotty dogs belonged to neighbors and I pretended they were black bear cubs from the circus, just like my grandmother had played with, 50 years earlier.
My grandmother was a modern marvel and an anachronism, a throw back to an earlier day. She canned her own fruit. I watched what seemed like a difficult, laborious process. What a waste when you could buy jam and jelly at the store, I had thought. No longer. I relish those 'olden days' - rare moments into a glimpse of the past, a time no longer here, where not even the red mountains whisper long-dead secrets.
Monday was washday. I helped Grandma Leigh take the laundry, including her LDS garments, and put it all in the tub next to the washboard.
Together, weÂ sang and danced the Irish washerwoman's jig as weÂ scrubbed the clothes on the washboard,Â then put the clothes through the wringer. This fascinated me no end, as no one else I knew had a wringer in 1956. Grandma Leigh made soap out of lye, another moment of times gone by that fascinated me no end.
We pinned the laundry to the line; as it hung like teepees and blew in the 105 degree heat and soft breeze, I played cowboys and Indians under the sheets that hung in the hot Dixie sun. Southern Utah had been settled by many whose ancestry had come from the South, such as the Langfords, who had hailed from Kentucky. Dixie was as much a part of Utah as it was a part of the South.
My grandmother's brother, Bert, had a son, BobbyÂ - we called him my second cousin -Â but really, he was my Great Uncle's son.
Bobby was my age, and together we played during those hot summer days. We walked to the corner store and bought Bits-O-Honey, or those miniature wax bottles you could drink from. Some days, we bought Clove gum, and tried to pass off our chew as ABC (already been chewed) gum to some unsuspecting friends. That joke became old, all too soon.
On many days, we shuffled our feet along the irrigation ditches, kicking up the red dust, whose dust swells were like ghosts of ancestors long ago.Â On the rare days it rained, the rains poured buckets andÂ the ditches flooded. We delighted in the cold, pelting rains that soon had us dancing in the streets, barefoot with pantlegs rolled up, pointing our faces toward the sky, letting the rain fall on our hot, sun-drenched faces. it was a moment in childhood we would never forget.
Twice a week my grandmother worked at Wanda's, a nursery school in Cedar. I often accompanied her to Wanda's lest I display any bored behavior and annoy her. On my first trip to Grandma Leigh's house,Â Wanda's was special as I had finished three years of nursery school, but I was one year too young for kindergarten.
Other days, Grandma Leigh and I played beauty parlor. I pinned her red, Irish curls with bobby pins, and then applied rouge and lipstick on her. She did the same for me. She mixed corn fritters or Johnnycakes in the Sunbeam Mixmaster, then fried them in the cast-iron pan, and we ate them for lunch.
She told me stories from the family 'oral histories.' These were the stories her parents and grandparents had passed on to her.
My grandmother's grandmother, Mandana Hillman, was descended from Mayflower passenger Henry Samson, and was part of the Mayhew clan who had lived in Chillmark, Martha's Vineyard, Â from the 17th century until the 19th century. Mandana HillmanÂ was raised in upstate New York and moved to Utah with William Dalley, in the 19th century.
One ancestor of my grandmother's was part of a large company to come west, the Martin Handcart Co., which has been much written about in history books, due to its decimating the ranks of those who traveled from Iowa to Salt Lake. They had left too late in the season; walking those nearly 2,000 miles took eight months.
My favorite story was about my Grandpa Leigh's mother, who was born in a snowstorm as the Martin Handcart Co. trekked along the North Platte River.Â Grandpa Leigh's grandmother's long waist-length hair had frozen to the ground during the storm and had to be shorn.
Such a difficult time seemed romantic to my childish mind.
On Sundays, we went to church. The first Sunday of every month was a day of fasting. This was difficult for my young, fast metabolism, but I was not required to fully comply. Church service in the adult church was long, hot and boring. I did not like the Communion of white Wonder bread squares and miniature Dixie cups of water.
I wanted the real stuff - wafers and wine.
Sunday school with my aunt and cousins was much more tolerable, as we learned about Jesus, a young man at odds with his world.
Most of all, my grandmother worked with the Navajo church, officially called the Welfare Indian Branch of the LDS Church.Â I loved going with her to this small, stone church.Â Some of the women at the Navajo church still wore traditional Navajo dress. This church held the promise of something mysterious and exotic.
After a few years of doing LDS work at the Navajo church, the main LDS church in Cedar told her she needed to return to the main church. My grandmother told them in no uncertain terms to 'stuff it' and that she was going to do what she thought best.
My grandmother also took three foster children, Les, Elsie and Paulita.Â Les was a Navajo boy from the reservation, a few years older than I.
Les and I became fast friends. He proved himself to be adept at games I'd never heard of. He was rough and tumble, and I - being a tomboy ofÂ seven, liked to wrestle. So, we wrestled, and played cowboys and Indians - the real thing.
And by this time, I had had two younger sisters - who often were too young to really play the games I wanted to play. So having a playmate a few years older than I was something I looked forward to every summer.
But this, too, was not to last.
Soon, Les was to return to the Indian school in Bountiful, Utah. This school was part of the long, awful tradition of Indian schools set up by the US Government. It was there that Les learned to submit to white man's ways and to give up his Navajo heritage. It was there he learned he would have to cooperate on white man's terms in order to survive.
It nearly killed him. Years went by and I'd not heard from him. It was rumored that Les drank and stole from my grandmother, the woman he called, 'Mom', only to then disappear again to New Mexico or Arizona.
I felt sad for Les. Such a waste of talent.
At that time, I did not fully appreciate how deeply his school experiences or my grandmother had touched him. In my 20s, my grandmother told me he had become a local celebrity in Utah and had appeared on TV, preaching to other Navajos to quit drinking and to return to their native traditions.
I was proud of him. On one trip, I went down to the local Navajo drop-in center, where my white presence was clearly not welcome. I asked if they knew 'Les J----. They did. He lived in Arizona, but stopped by from time to time. I left my telephone number in Boston and asked that he call me collect.
My aunt said Les would steal from me. I wagered he wouldn't. Two or three years later, he called me in Boston. I was overjoyed. He told me he was studying for his master's in California, that he had overcome alcoholism by returning to his Navajo rituals. I realized how important his Navajo roots were to him and how destructive these Indian schools were.
Years before this, I had beenÂ a reporter in Washington, D.C. for a news service at the graduate school I attended. I was a political beat reporter for "The Ogden Standard-Examiner", in Ogden, Utah. I covered the Utah Senators and Congressmen - both national and local -Â and any important goings on near Ogden, Utah.
At that time, the US Department of the Interior, James Watt, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to close the Native American schools in the US. The school in Bountiful was slated to close. I was outraged. I viewed the school as a place where the Navajo children could go to school. The students would be mainstreamed into local schools.
I had not yet realized how awful these schools had been,Â and how they had molded Native Americans to white ways while also depriving them of their heritage. I wrote a lot of front-page stories for that local Ogden newspaper. Two years after the stories appeared, the school closed and Navajo children were mainstreamed into public schools, for better or worse.
Les told me he did not like the Navajo school, that it deprived him of feeling Navajo and that it was important to be true to his own identity. I wished him well with his studies and he told me how much my grandmother, "Mom", meant to him. He visited her gravesite and placed flowers there. He would not be returning to Cedar City for a long time, but said that he and all his children were happy.
I visited my grandmother's grave in 1989, a few weeks after she died. She hadÂ missed seeing her first great-grandchild, my son, by only a few weeks. I remembered her most fondly of my four grandparents because she had a special andÂ kind way about her.
She sold the house at First South and Second West before she died, then lived with her daughter in Salt Lake during the last year of her life. She had survived two small strokes and a major stroke; sheÂ survived uterine cancer and had had surgery to remove clogged arteries.
Eventually, her life, too, was not to last; it was old age and blood poisoning that took her from us all. She was 86.
At her grave, she lay next to her husband, Wilford Webster Leigh. I looked at her grave and the following words came to me in an epiphany.
"She lay there like a poem, so still in beauty, so quiet in repose."...
And this, alone, lasts.
This was rewritten and re-researchedÂ from earlier versions posted on Gather in 2006 and 2007.
Copyright Â© 2006, 2007, 2008m 2009. Kathryn Esplin-Oleski. All rights reserved.